This is not online or distance learning

I messed up.

For the first few weeks of our current situation, I’ve been referring to what teachers, schools, families and kids are going through as “online learning” or “distance learning” or “virtual learning” (note: you can see this verbiage in the resources I’ve curated)

While we are all doing some of that online/distance/virtual learning right now, it is not what this should be called.

This is emergency remote learning.

It was not planned for.

Most school’s curriculum was not crafted to be online or distance learning experiences. Most teachers and staff have not been trained in teaching online or through virtual tools.

Most kids and families have not had the opportunity to be prepared for this change in learning.

And yet, here we are, everyone doing their best to make this work.

But, when we call it online, distance, virtual learning we tend to make comparisons to those experiences that were planned for.

I completed my Master’s in Global and International Education in an online/distance learning cohort at Drexel University.

The program was planned that way, it was designed that way, and I (as a student) knew what I was signing up for.

It was still difficult to do, even as an adult who had access to all the appropriate technology and resources.

I teach online courses for the University of Pennsylvania GSE Penn Literacy Network. It still isn’t perfect and we have issues with each cohort, even after having taught this course online since 2016. I’m still making mistakes as an instructor who has planned for, tweaked, iterated, and constantly improved an online course for multiple years!

So, no, this isn’t easy, even when everything is planned and prepared for in advance.

Flash forward to our situation right now.

In a matter of days, teachers and school leaders have had to take curriculum, resources, assessments, and lessons that were designed for an in-person (or at least blended) experience (and without any sustained training), turned it into a remote learning experience.

This is hard work, but it is the only option.

On top of this process, educators are dealing with their own families, friends, and loved ones. Those they may be in quarantine with, and those that they may be worried about during this pandemic.

The families of students we are working with are also facing uncertainty, anxiety, and medical concerns during this pandemic.

That is why this is not only “remote” learning, but “emergency remote learning”.

I was reminded of this (and my failure to acknowledge the difference) while preparing for our webinar for school leaders last night (here is the replay link if you’d like to watch) with George Couros and Katie Novak. In his most recent blog post, “Towards A New and Better Normal“, George explains:

I know many families are asking for routine and structure at this time, and I appreciate so many educators working with families to help them in any way that can. But I was also reminded that this is not merely schools moving “online.” The title of this article hit me when I read it; “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.”

I immediately read that article with fresh eyes about the experience. The following paragraphs put it all into perspective for me as an educator and dad of four kids:

Moving instruction online can enable the flexibility of teaching and learning anywhere, anytime, but the speed with which this move to online instruction is expected to happen is unprecedented and staggering. Although campus support personnel and teams are usually available to help faculty members learn about and implement online learning, these teams typically support a small pool of faculty interested in teaching online. In the present situation, these individuals and teams will not be able to offer the same level of support to all faculty in such a narrow preparation window. Faculty might feel like instructional MacGyvers, having to improvise quick solutions in less-than-ideal circumstances. No matter how clever a solution might be—and some very clever solutions are emerging—many instructors will understandably find this process stressful.

The temptation to compare online learning to face-to-face instruction in these circumstances will be great…

Online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite research showing otherwise. These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option, when in truth nobody making the transition to online teaching under these circumstances will truly be designing to take full advantage of the affordances and possibilities of the online format.

Researchers in educational technology, specifically in the subdiscipline of online and distance learning, have carefully defined terms over the years to distinguish between the highly variable design solutions that have been developed and implemented: distance learning, distributed learning, blended learning, online learning, mobile learning, and others. Yet an understanding of the important differences has mostly not diffused beyond the insular world of educational technology and instructional design researchers and professionals. Here, we want to offer an important discussion around the terminology and formally propose a specific term for the type of instruction being delivered in these pressing circumstances: emergency remote teaching.

I for one, am happy to see the distinction and use the term “emergency remote teaching”.

Yes, what we are doing right now has components of online learning.

It definitely is from a distance.

It is drawing upon the use of virtual learning tools and resources.

But, it is not the same as online learning as we know it.

We can learn from the folks who have been teaching online and distance learning, but even their experiences cannot truly provide a roadmap for emergency remote learning.

In our book, Empower, John Spencer and I make the case that there is no instructional manual (and that is ok):

The sooner we realize that there is no instructional manual for this situation, the sooner we can give each other grace to experiment, learn, and iterate to the best of our abilities in the worst of circumstances.

Thank you to all of the educators out there doing the hard work of emergency remote teaching, for all the right reasons, in the most uncertain of times.

As a parent, I appreciate you, and as a colleague, I am inspired by you.


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Join the discussion 31 Comments

  • Joy McIntosh says:

    A.J., thank you! You hit the nail on the head. This is exactly what is happening.

  • Michelle Werre says:

    Great article with valid points! Another issue is that some of us had 15 minutes to go into school and get what we needed which was not enough time, especially for primary teachers. I threw books in crates and managed 3 boxes of teaching materials and books to use as mentor texts in that 15 min! So we also don’t have the resources we typically have.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      So true, not nearly enough time.

      • Isabella Sá says:

        Thank you so much for the article. It is a relief to be understood… The only point is – how do we keep experimenting for the next 2 months without getting teachers and parents burned out?

  • C. Collins says:

    Yes!!! This has been so stressful for me. Everybody thinks I don’t have anything else to do when I’m home. I go to work to escape everything I have to do at home! It’s an untrusion into my personal space and time and I resent it.

    • C. Collins says:


    • K. Davis says:

      The struggle is REAL folks!! I know I spend more than 8 hours a day on my school work now! When I could go to work I was able to switch to home life now everything is merging together! I HAD to create a schedule for my self and learn how to step away! Thanks for sharing your insights!

  • Jackie says:

    I was in your webinar yesterday and this is so true. Anxiety has gone up because we are also comparing ourselves to what other people are doing. IN the end, we have to trust our own instincts and help where we can help and keep those relationships with students, parents, and colleagues strong and open!

  • Derick Sanderson says:

    As we educators here in California gear up for a new type of public high school and the amazing amount of stress it has placed on us-to begin delivering this next Monday; this article reminded me that as the world watches what we teachers will be doing we have been given to grace to try!

  • D says:

    You hit the nail on the head, AJ. It is definitely an emergency and it is unplanned remote learning – we don’t have student or teacher manuals for distance learning, and not everyone has the bandwidth to go online.
    I find myself working almost 24/7 to keep up! With no physical resources, I am finding it challenging to design learning experiences for the students we serve – those with special needs. So I spend time creating 3 sets of material for each lesson: lesson plans, parent plans, and detailed task lists that would otherwise have simply been conversations. And we are still expected to keep the same schedule as before school “went online”. I gulp meals in under 5 minutes (who has time for sorely needed mindfulness?) while working, and get less sleep now than when I used to go to school.
    Still waiting to catch up, which will happen, one day soon.

  • Paul A says:

    Teaching and Learning (Two different activities)
    Learning as an individual activity takes into account at least Style, modalities, rate, to mention a few. Learning as a change in behavior or thinking. While working with individuals in a positive environment lends itself this way of thinking.

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  • […] I didn’t expect as much of a response to the previous post, but if anything is clear, most of us are in agreement that our current situation is emergency […]

  • Adrienne Patrick says:

    Thank you from the depths of my heart (and head, and hands!) for sharing the link regarding emergency remote learning. These are needed words and so uplifting!

  • Kath says:

    Thank you for giving us a definition for what is happening. I am planning to share this link with our staff who have come through their first week of emergency remote teaching with incredible teamwork and care for students…but also with significant stress, worry, and exhaustion. As administrators, we are also learning how to engage in emergency remote instructional leadership. Thank you for extending a message of grace for all of us doing our best to meet a need so far out of our normal.

  • […] I figured this was the best time to look into it. Especially considering our current state of emergency distance education. I have seen many teachers grasping to figure out new systems to deliver their content and have […]

  • […] Juliani, in his article “This is not online or distance learning” refers to the current education context as “remote […]

  • […] some articles have convincingly argued, what we ended up with was not “online learning” but “emergency remote teaching”.   It may have some positive elements and it may end up forming part of a more well thought […]

  • Pinto says:

    Great stuff. You provide solutions too. This remedial method should be part of every orientation from top to bottom and bottom-up including and starting with principals up to school teachers, room helpers even janitors can help (we never now). Thanks

  • Poorvi Reddy says:

    Thanks for this awesome Information and Deeper Learning
    I will share this link to my knowledge

  • Debby Hines says:

    Hey! I was looking at your site last week and signed up to have a teacher talk to me about online activities for students during the pandemic. She made an appointment to talk to me at 11 o’clock this morning for 30 minutes.
    I think her name was Lorraine but I am not sure about that. It’s 11:30 and no call yet.

  • […] I’ve seen a lot of blog posts, articles, and videos where people are deciding what’s working for everyone in our current situation. And while I respect the opinions of everyone sharing their thoughts online, I’m a bit tired of the judgment being placed on teachers and school leaders and people trying to do the work of emergency remote teaching/learning. […]

  • Caroline Morrison says:

    In 2017 I was teaching in the Virgin Islands after hurricanes Irma and Maria less than a week later we started school, in damaged classrooms with no power and limited running water. So, not online learning learning but absolutely crisis mode. What we knew was that the students loved seeing their friends and being in a familiar environment, albeit challenging. Parents were thankful, freed up to clean up homes or talk with FEMA and SBA. Fellow teachers, well heck we were cheered to be working alongside kindred souls. For the first six weeks it was “Hurricane Camp” ; a structured schedule providing time to talk, journaling, art projects all geared at emotional support and lots of games and reading. As power then internet were slowly restored between Thanksgiving and January (seriously) expectations began to return to a semblance of normalcy. In this situation we embraced the lack of internet as children returned to board games and hard bound books, conversations and letter writing cherished. Reports were written by hand and presented without tech flourish. Did child fall behind academically, it’s hard to say. Did children learn empathy, resilience and making-due absolutely!

  • […] (as the case may be) as we pivot from in-person teaching to Emergency Remote Learning (thank you AJ Juliani and his reference to this article)- that’s my favorite term for whatever the craziness is that […]

  • […] (as the case may be) as we pivot from in-person teaching to Emergency Remote Learning (thank you AJ Juliani and his reference to this article)- that’s my favorite term for whatever the craziness is that […]

  • […] This is not online or distance learning – A.J. JULIANI […]

  • […] in this new “distance learning” phase for a few weeks now – or as A.J. Juliani calls it “emergency remote learning.” Whatever term you use, we’re discovering that it’s not the same. We can’t replicate what […]

  • […] First, be sure to cut yourself some slack. Remote teaching is never easy, and it takes time to get the hang of it. There is a learning curve and so many options for how to engage and connect, so it can feel overwhelming. There helpful article, shared by the Maine Department of Education, highlights the difficulties schools and educators are facing: […]

  • […] finally feeling a bit steady on my technological & pedagogical feet during these weeks of “Remote Emergency Teaching,” you write this week insisting that we “show cura personalis and to continue to develop […]

  • Dr Reuben Nguyo says:

    Thanks a lot @Juliani for sharing

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